Old Guys Yes, Retro Never

The retro vogue muddied the water a bit in 1998. Some jazz enthusiasts thought they had to proffer at least qualified support, as in: Isn't this what we fantasized— a popular revival of swing, big bands, touch dancing, and, let's just say it flat out, an antidote to that goddamn rock? Indeed, if we can impeach the '60s, why not go whole hog and eradicate the '50s, where the trouble began? I call on every young person reading this column to forage in granpappy and granmammy's closets, keeping an eye peeled for round cardboard boxes— they may contain wartime fedoras and pleated skirts. Free passes to Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line to the first person to locate an authentic snood, dead or alive.

On the other hand, don't bother with old vinyl recordings, even if you can figure out how to play them. Because a taste for retro will not necessarily translate into a taste for '30s and '40s jazz, and the reverse is guaranteed. Retro is dance music, like acid jazz. It's about generation, costume, and, in an odd way, rebellion, all fine and dandy. But a cursory examination of recordings by such bands as Royal Crown Revue, the Flying Neutrinos, and Indigo Swing reveal little to interest listeners. Every tempo is jitterbuggy, every riff an homage to "In the Mood," every beat laden with bass; the arrangements and solos are generic, which is to say in opposition to the imperial individuality that sparked competition among the great swing players and orchestras. And the vocals are shameful. Who would have imagined that the Widespread Depression Orchestra of 20 years ago would one day be considered ahead of its time? Johnny Holtzman, wherever you are, your day has come at last.

"Tradition," wrote Engels, "is a great retarding force, the vis inertia of history." Originality curbs production! Diana Krall excelsior! But having said that, it was a '70s sort of year, and not half bad at that. The, um, post-'60s decade was notable not only for a generation of musicians of instantly identifiable originality, but for the return of masters who had taken five during the age of peace and love. Among the latter were Tommy Flanagan, who made one of the best instrumental CDs of the year, and Andy Bey, who made one of the best vocal CDs. A theatrical epiphany came late in Warren Leight's Sideman, a superior hybrid of The Glass Menagerie and Really the Blues, when three sidemen, relaxing during a break at a Lester Lanin gig, play "A Night in Tunisia," from Clifford Brown's last night, discovered and released in 1973. Joao Gilberto, whose last stateside hit was Amoroso/Brasil 20 years ago, gave the year's most memorable recital, anomalously at JVC, which was also notable for the stirring returns to form by Clark Terry and Al Grey, the latter playing from a wheelchair but laying down a gauntlet on the merits of authentic plunger-mute incantation as opposed to the ersatz kind. It was in 1977 that Grey left Basie— one year before Flanagan left Ella— to spur the mainstream revival, which was the obverse of retro though you could certainly dance to it (full disclosure: he played at my wedding). Capping the year was the dedication of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College, an exuberantly moving and long-awaited triumph for the inventor of American music, who died in 1971, less honored then than he is today.

Carmen Bradford found her own voice in the best concert of 1998: David Murray's preemptive Ellington tribute.
R. Andrew Lepley
Carmen Bradford found her own voice in the best concert of 1998: David Murray's preemptive Ellington tribute.

Similarly, the year's best concert, and a moving event in its own right, was David Murray's big band investigation of "The Obscure Works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn," at the underused Aaron Davis Hall on December 5, drawing an early bead on the centennial brouhaha that may get as repetitious as the Gershwin party, though I don't expect to complain. It was a marvel: an all-star big band that sounded— and was— rehearsed, amplified by full-bodied and rhythmically adept strings, arranged chiefly by James Newton, and conducted seriatim by Newton, Murray, Craig Harris, and John Purcell. With smashing solos by those four as well as Hugh Ragin, Hilton Ruiz, Gary Valente, Joe Bowie, and Alex Harding, the performances cast an anteretro spell of individual empowerment even as everyone knuckled down for the greater cause of expansive, kaleidoscopic charts based on the piano trio Money Jungle as well as revised gems like "Northern Lights," "Praise God," and "Blue Pepper." As Murray declaimed "Chelsea Bridge" with strings, one could hardly resist pretty thoughts of Ben Webster. Carmen Bradford, whose excessive melisma with Basie was irksome, has found her own voice, as on "African Flower." It's been far too long since we heard a Newton flute cadenza— the lavish harmonics, staccato mischief, and virtuoso sheen, as on his ravishing adaptation of "Blood Count."

Still, the surprise solos of the evening were by two utility players, John Stubblefield, one of the first AACM guys to arrive here, in 1971, and James Spaulding, who'd been playing sharp for a decade. Spaulding's alto saxophone obbligato and heated cadenza on "Warm Valley" were imbued with a glowing confidence heightened by his uncharacteristically centered pitch. "Such Sweet Thunder" began with the swinging and expressive trumpet of Hugh Ragin, who has lately seemed incapable of playing a dull note, but Stubblefield's tenor took the piece into JATP realm, with a foot-stomping peroration that had people whooping. If the evening was suffused with an old-home-week quality, as was Sam Rivers's extraordinary big band reunion at Sweet Basil, the nostalgia had less to do with remembrance than with a longing for players who can announce who they are the minute they stand up.

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